A collection of short stories, all by one author, is relatively rare these days when mystery books dominate recent adult fiction. Discovery of such a book – especially one well written and intriguing – makes one sit up and notice.
That’s my reaction to John R. Cobb’s refreshingly different 19 stories contained in his new book titled “Tales of the Cemetery Trees.” Most of his stories are about gritty rural life in the wilds of northern and eastern Maine. A couple of others are set in Mississippi and the Brazos River area of Texas, where Cobb lived a portion of his early life.
Like the Maine stories in “Tales,” those that unfold in the west and south are similar in that they focus on proud backwoods people and their often frighteningly interesting lives.
In subject matter, Cobb’s short stories are reminiscent of Carolyn Chute’s grim masterpieces. But there’s at least one difference. Cobb’s stories – at least a good number of them – are fantasies in which characters come face to face with strange, otherworldly beings. When it happens, the transition from everyday hardscrabble life to fantasy is tantalizingly subtle. Some readers will interpret the leap as Cobb’s introduction of spirit people from another realm. Others will see it as near-death hallucinations of characters under physical and mental distress
The third story in Cobb’s book, “The Old Sow,” is that kind of tale. It begins with a young woman named Heidi paddling her kayak across Passamaquoddy Bay after a day of drinking and dope smoking with friends. When clouds obliterate the shoreline, she is lost and panicked. Soon her kayak is sucked into Old Sow whirlpool, a real-life Maine navigation menace where dozens of boaters have drowned.
But in Cobb’s story, Heidi descends 400 feet beneath the whirlpool, winding up in a damp place where condemned souls dwell in a miserably cold underworld.
“What were your sins, my dear?” a disgusting man asks Heidi while crawling toward her on the slimy sand.
“Sins?” she says. “…Is this God’s sick joke?”
Or, the reader wonders, is it Heidi’s last hallucination?
No matter. “Old Sow” is an exciting story of adventure no matter how you interpret it.
In another tale I especially like, a Maine bush pilot spots a strange cluster of trees while flying an unfamiliar route over the north woods. It looks to him like virgin timber. So he tells his friend, Butch, a money-hungry timber cruiser. Rumors of a mythical virgin stand worth millions have circulated for years, and Butch goes searching on foot for this lumberman bonanza.
He finds the gigantic trees after a grueling, all-day hike. Battered, scratched and near hypothermic, he discovers as twilight fades that he’s surrounded by unfriendly animals including “an enormous bear,” a fox with twitching tail and giant beaver. Most frightening of all is a sexy but menacing female creature with feline eyes. Her rustic gown of forest plants “clings to her shapely body.”
Poor Butch. He eyes the forest protectors with sinking heart. Eventually, Cobb writes, “An albino porcupine began to gnaw on his cheekbone…”
Though enticing for the most part, not every story in “Tales” is a winner. Two are so dark and so excessively graphic that they have little appeal, at least to this reader. “An Autumn Trek,” the story of a homicidal man and his teenage bride, is over the top. The same for “A Goodnight Wish.” That’s about a domestic fight that ends in murder, sounds of the battle heard and interpreted by a 4-year-old boy hiding under his bed.
Born in Pecos, Texas, in 1965, Cobb and his sister moved to Mississippi with their mother after their parents divorced. Not long after, they moved again.
“(When I was) around eight,” he writes, “my sister and I were moved to Maine where my mother was born and raised. As a boy, it didn’t take many excursions into the Maine wilds before my love of the outdoors became a lifelong passion.”
A U.S. Army veteran, Cobb is an IT infrastructure analyst who lives with his family in Holden. In 2012 he published a previous novel, “Judith: A Quoddy Tale.”
I enthusiastically recommend “Tales of the Cemetery Trees.” Its 19 stories are so remarkably varied that if you don’t like one or two, a dozen other will please. Here’s a book not to be missed.
Lloyd Ferriss is a writer and photographer who lives in Richmond.